Preventative Health Task Force refuses to lower the age of breast cancer screening

The Canadian Cancer Survivor Network joins various groups in voicing disappointment over the Task Force’s recommendation.

The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care has refused to lower the age of recommended breast cancer screening to 40, despite several groups urging otherwise, including the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.

The Task Force was created by the federal government to develop clinical guidelines for doctors in matters like cancer care. The current guidelines require regular screenings for breast cancer to begin at 50 if the patient is at an average risk of developing the condition. As of today, those guidelines, as well as ones saying that the maximum age for routine screening is capped at 75 years of age, remain in place.

This is despite multiple cancer groups, oncologists and radiologists pushing for change. Lowering the recommended age of screening has been shown to catch more breast cancers at earlier stages. This means that this cancer is more manageable, less taxing to the patient’s health, and directly results in healthcare savings (this was proven in a recent University of Ottawa study).

The decision has elicited a response from Canada’s Health Minister, the Honorable Mark Holland. In a statement, he says that he has serious concerns about the Task Force’s findings, and says it is critical that they provide the best guidance possible for the Canadian health care system.

“I am inviting leading experts on breast cancer to carefully review the draft guidelines and to share their critical analysis during the consultation period. I’ve called for an extension of the public consultation period with stakeholders from six weeks to a minimum of sixty days so that every can contribute on this deeply important issue.”

The health minister has also asked for the Chief Public Health Officer to convene senior provincial health officials to review the guidelines for themselves. He has also directed the Public Health Agency of Canada to increase support to organizations to raise awareness around breast cancer screening, and instructed the Canadian Institute for Health Research to work with several Canadian health and science organizations to figure out where research gaps are.

The ruling has drawn condemnation from several cancer groups.

The decision was heavily criticized by Dense Breasts Canada, with the organization posting on Twitter/X that “We continue to have guidelines in Canada that do not reflect modern science and do not prioritize the lives of Canadians. [The Canadian Task Force] has failed and needs to be disbanded. [Health Minster Mark Holland] please take action now to save lives.”

The Canadian Cancer Society announced on Twitter/X that they were disappointed by the Task Force’s decision. “The new national breast screening guidelines miss the mark. We encourage everyone to share feedback in public consultation.” They say they strongly recommend investing in research, expanding data collection, and enhancing breast cancer screening programs and guidelines across the country.

However, in the Task Force’s ruling, they add that if someone aged 40 and over understands the benefits and harms of early screening, they should be able to get a mammogram every two to three years.

Despite the ruling, many provinces have lowered the breast cancer screening age to 40. British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Yukon already start screening at that age, while Ontario is set to make the change in the fall of 2024. CCSN urges other provinces, like Quebec and Manitoba, to ignore the Canadian Preventative Health Task Force’s recommendation and put patients first to ensure fewer late-stage cancers are found in the country’s healthcare system.